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Compressing time.

Compressing time

Time is an increasingly rare commodity. All of the "toys" we now have at our disposal - FAX machines, cellular phones, high-speed on-line computer systems - are invaluable in today's business world. Back in the fifties, when we were just beginning to envision these high-speed, labor saving devices, we were concerned with how we would deal with all the leisure time we would have.

Unfortunately, no leisure time resulted. Instead, these marvelous machines force us to get some work done in a shorter time. What we used to take a week to get done, we now have to do in a day. Our customers expect it, our bosses insist on it and the competitive market demands it. Time is compressed.

The resulting rush is difficult in normal business and even worse in trying to bring a new product to market. New product design efforts are not easy. The increasing complexity of the products we must design makes this even more difficult.

For example, let's consider a tire. In the 1920s, visual appearance, wear and general durability were about the only criteria customers were concerned with. Materials available for use were essentially limited to natural rubber, cotton fabric and thermal black. Choices were few and the desired characteristics limited.

Times have changed. Durability and wear have been indexed. Plus we're also interested in ride and handling characteristics, skid resistance, high speed performance, noise and a whole list of other characteristics. Our list of materials with which we can build the tire has expanded from 15 or so to several thousand - natural and synthetic polymers, fibers, steel, reinforcing agents, coagents, antidegradants, etc. We must also concern ourselves with potential health and safety hazards that are associated with our product in use and the materials we expose our workers to.

All in all, new product design today requires inputs not only from our customers' engineers, but also our own manufacturing engineers, materials experts, suppliers, safety experts and half a dozen other related fields.

In the recent past, design efforts were largely handled by the manufacturers' design engineers. They would solicit or receive discreet blocks of input from the customer, materials experts, suppliers, etc., and develop a product design to meet the customers' needs. If there was a change in design or a new material became available, they would provide the interface between the materials or safety people or the customer's engineering staff. This method is shown in figure 1.

However, with our rapidly changing world, we are now facing a new problem. Products can be obsolete before we get them into the market.

What can we do?

This tried and true process for development of new products works. However, it has several drawbacks.

* It is time consuming.

* It has limited flexibility for change.

* Some alternative materials or designs may be over-looked because there is limited communication between the high and low end of the chain.

A new method being used by a number of manufacturers is called "concurrent engineering." The ultimate objective of this system is to better be able to serve the customer's needs. It differs from the old "block process" in that all pertinent disciplines meet together as a team. They are then able to simultaneously design, evaluate and interact on the various aspects of the product to be made. This is illustrated in figure 2.

Instead of the numerous stages of a development project being done as separate, isolated functions, all are performed simultaneously and in concert with each other. Once the basic concept has been arrived at, materials evaluation and selection, drafting, structural analysis, manufacturing engineering and prototyping are all done simultaneously. Concurrent engineering has been described as "seamless integration from conceptual design to final part production." In other words, direct "art to part" engineering.

This system has several basic requirements:

* Good communication

* Well defined goals

* Good data

* Good tools

* Experience

It is an outgrowth of the total quality process. The effort involves a team of various disciplines that are spread over several layers of the manufacturing process and, typically, several companies - material suppliers, component suppliers, manufacturers and assemblers, and the final customer.

According to some who have embarked on this process, such as BASF of Chicago, Illinois, the team needs to be put together before applying the approach to a specific project. In the case of a polymer product, the team might include a designer, draftsman, materials engineer, molder, mold builder, materials supplier and the customer. Often there is more than one person from each participating company.

Continuous communication between the team members is essential. Computers are often used for communication, eliminating the time and inconvenience of physical gatherings and providing each member for the team with as much detailed information as they need or is available. For computer communication to be effective, both hardware and software must be compatible among all the team members.

Many software programs are available to make up simulations. Final choice should be based on how familiar the various team members are with any given system and how well the system will perform the required task.

Information that is passed along to the various team members must be good information. Accuracy of data is critical. Questionable data or information that is less than sure can lead to a less than optimal design. Design changes that require trade-offs are expected in this process. However, design changes that occur because of accurate information defeat the purpose of the system.

Once the information is distributed, it must be acted upon by other team members. Likewise, each team member must understand how his function fits with each of the other functions and how he can help them enhance the other team members' part of the effort.

Goals must be well defined. This includes as much of the physical and functional requirements for the product as possible. It should also include assembly requirements, cost restrictions, schedule needs and anything else relevant to the production of the part.

How well does the system work?

This is a difficult question to answer. The companies that have made the commitment to use it believe that it has significantly reduced the time required to reach a conclusion to a development project. It has been used in a variety of areas. I'm personally aware of its use on a variety of projects in complex aerospace projects.

The only thing "sure" when using concurrent engineering is that the target will move. Input from each of the functional areas will result in changes to the final design and possibly the performance. As long as the changes that are made are consistent with the original goals and objectives, this does not present a problem.

As long as everyone is doing their jobs there will be trade-offs. For example, the material supplier may suggest that costs could be reduced significantly by using material "B" rather than "A." However, this may require the part manufacturer to change the design to compensate for different properties. If this design change results in interference with another component in the customer's assembly, the customer may decide to modify the other assembly if the cost reduction is worth it. Or they may decide that they cannot not alter the other component and must stay with material "A."

Economics of various tool designs and methods of manufacturing can be compared to capital and maintenance costs to optimize production costs. However, it opens the discussion of all alternatives to each of the parties who will be part of the manufacture of the final part.

Use of concurrent engineering requires very open communication between all levels of the program. There can be no hesitancy on the part of the manufacturer because he is concerned that proprietary information given to the customer will be given to a competitor. Trust is essential.

Also, each member of the team must be recognized and respected as a contributor to the final product. There will be disagreements. But these must be managed so that they are constructive and not destructive.


It's been said that juggling is not something that you just start doing. It takes lots of practice. Starting with two things, then adding a third, then a fourth, and so on. The more items juggled, the more practice and skill required. Also, more mistakes will be made in learning how to handle the objects.

The same can be said about concurrent engineering. It requires practice and training. Mistakes will be made. But, overall, it will result in better communication between the various levels of the production process. New ideas and materials can be explored more readily. It will result in more effective and efficient products being introduced to the market. And it will do it faster.

We can no longer afford the luxury of long development times. We must develop the means and method to react to changes in our markets and devise effective means of bringing new products to the market.

As our markets become more global, we must improve our reaction times and "compress time" as we bring our assets to bear on new products and not so new problems. Concurrent engineering appears to be one of those tools that will help us do just that.

PHOTO : Figure 1

PHOTO : Figure 2
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Title Annotation:Tech Service
Author:Menough, Jon
Publication:Rubber World
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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